"A van that once transported our criminals will now be used to transport our heroes."
That was the statement from Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott as he spoke during the presentation of a used police van to a local veterans organization at a ceremony Thursday morning at Echo Park that featured also U.S. Rep. Curt Clawson.
Hearts & Home for Veterans is a Lee County 501C3 organization that helps care for military veterans in need - from taking them to doctor's appointments to supplying homeless vets clothing, food, vital supplies and even bikes for transportation.
The van will be used to transport their clients to those appointments throughout Lee County and elsewhere, but the ultimate goal of the organization is something much bigger.
Harvey Charter, vice president of Hearts and Homes and commander of the Jewish War Veterans, said they got the van by simply asking Scott, saying they needed to take vets to dental appointments on the east coast.
"We're not bashful. We are doers and make it happen. We've only been a 501C3 since December," Charter said. "Our ultimate goal is to bring housing to veterans by buying duplexes, rehabbing them and allowing them a place to live without them giving away 80 percent of their income."
HHV has also helped close to 50 veterans obtain dental care as the VA only offers this to fully disabled veterans, driving them to the east coast of Florida where a local team of dentists offers their services at no cost, Charter said.
The van had been phased out of usefulness by the Sheriff's Office, but still had life left, Scott said. It was refurbished and donated for the cause.
"We donated it rather than auction it off. It's a good cause. Needy veterans will be helped by this," Scott said. "I can think of no greater cause than to help those who fought for our freedom."
The event brought war veterans from all over the area. Charter, along with Don Payton, HHV president, spoke on behalf of veterans and thanked those who helped, such as the Jewish War Veterans; LeeSar, which donated a place to park their van; and the Vietnam Vets of America, Post 594.
"We wanted to go into the woods and help as many homeless veterans as we could with the limited resources we had. Many veterans are holding on by their fingertips," Payton said. "When veterans come to us for whatever need, our response has always been 'we can help or find the help you need.'"
Clawson, whose family is filled with veterans, presented a flag to Payton and Charter, complimented them and the sheriff for their work and made a plug for Israel.
"It's an honor for me to be here and be associated in any way with the sheriff. We are a country that backs up our vets and we back up our friends like Israel," Clawson said. "I plan on supporting our veterans so we can keep our promises to you for the honor you brought us."
Clawson also donated $1,000 for gas for the van, which LeeSar CEO Bob Simpson matched.
Simpson, a Vietnam veteran, said he was sad that he's had to walk in the woods and see veterans living under trees and tents.
"That has to stop now. There is not a hall big enough in this county to put the people who should be helping us," Simpson said. "We have to get them out of the woods, feed them, and put them to work."